Editor’s Memo

Bare flagpoles

Iden Wetherell

DO you recall the days when our leaders used to strut upon the world stage? When they made keynote speeches at international conferences

and hardly a month passed without some state visit here or there?


Do you remember Samora Machel Ave and the road to the airport being festooned with flags and portraits of visiting potentates? When was the last time we had a state visit from anybody?


The government claims Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi’s visit last July was a state visit. But it could not have been a state visit because Zenawi is a prime minister. Only heads of state can make state visits. And they are accompanied by set protocol. Prime ministers don’t cut it.


The state media don’t fully grasp this and like to refer to official visits as state visits.


Interestingly, Zenawi was Ethiopia’s president. But constitutional changes turned that post into a ceremonial one handing the prime minister executive power. So he swapped jobs!


I recall Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s state visit in 1983. He was taken to Kintyre Estate near Lake Chivero to see its impressive cattle herd and irrigated crops. And he was given the freedom of the City of Harare.


A ZRP officer trained in Romania impressed everybody by saying a few words in Romanian.


Relations with Romania were closer than those with other East European states because Ceausescu had thrown off Soviet tutelage in 1965 and pursued an independent path just as Yugoslavia’s Tito had done nearly 20 years earlier. This opened the way for close relations with Zanu while Zapu adhered to the Soviet bloc.


I hope Ceausescu and his wife Elena did not remove too many of the fittings from their guest house during their stay here. When they went to London in 1968 the French president called Buckingham Palace to warn the British royals to nail everything down. Several antique objects had gone missing after the couple’s stay as guests at the Elysée!


The Ceausescu’s met a grisly end, executed on December 25 1989 after a brief military trial. I have seen the video footage of Elena shouting at the soldiers not to tie her and her husband up prior to their execution. Her indignation was palpable. Here was a couple that had presided over every facet of their nation’s life – Elena even claiming authorship of scientific articles she didn’t write.


But the most striking aspect of their fall was the balcony scene at the presidential palace. As Ceausescu addressed the normally obedient multitudes below, a murmur of discontent began to rise from the crowd. Who started it we shall never know. There were a few shouts. And then it became a rumble of protest.


An official whispered in Ceausescu’s ear – overheard by the microphone – “the Securitate are coming”.


But it was too late. Romania’s dreaded secret police – reported at one time to have trained our own – were unable to suppress the popular insurrection that had erupted. Ceausescu left his palace in a helicopter but was then intercepted by the army before he could leave the country.


The events of 1989 were instrumental in our own political evolution. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Ceausescu’s demise removed the ideological buttressing of the one-party culture in Zimbabwe. President Mugabe’s explanation that Zanu PF adopted Marxist-Leninism because its sponsors espoused it is thoroughly disingenuous. Zanu PF was able to get away with a proto-dictatorship because it had the support of other dictatorships. When they fell, its own Berlin Wall crumbled and Zimbabweans claimed the rights to which they were constitutionally entitled.


Suharto followed in 1998 not long after his state visit to Zimbabwe. One by one the old guard was booted out. Apart from Cuba and North Korea, only China remained, and there a capitalist revolution has propelled it along an entirely different trajectory. While China forges ahead with 8% per annum GDP growth Zimbabwe is wallowing in its own version of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s failed land experiment which set his country back 25 years.


Zimbabwe’s isolation becomes more complete by the month. The solidarity exhibited by blacks in the diaspora has been replaced by support for Zimbabwe’s civil society as letters to President Mugabe from influential African American groups reveal. Even in Africa, states adopting Nepad know the scheme has no future unless the Zimbabwe crisis is addressed.


Meanwhile, countries like Botswana, Rwanda and Uganda are growing. Uganda’s economic performance – with 6% GDP growth a year – has been among the most successful in the world over the past decade. Its president, Yoweri Museveni, is pursuing policies that create jobs through engagement with the international community.


“For decades Africa has demanded aid, aid, aid,” Museveni said recently in Washington. “I don’t want aid, I want trade.”


Having destroyed its agricultural base, Zimbabwe is holding out the national begging bowl to the World Food Programme for another year.


It’s a long time since we saw those flags and portraits plastered around the capital. And when was the last time President Mugabe was invited anywhere? Are the British really so influential that they can organise a global boycott?


What we are witnessing, both along the route to the airport with its bare flagpoles, and above all in our economy, is the isolation of a regime that refuses to see sense. This is a government that punishes people who carry fuel in containers because they cannot get it at the pumps; which says we must not carry around bank notes when the banks have no money; that breaks up meetings of school children because it fears free speech.


Zimbabwe is rapidly becoming a failed state, not because its people are a failure, but because its government has resorted to failed policies. So long as those policies persist and Ceausescu’s legacy lives on in Harare, the flagpoles are likely to remain bare.

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